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The Battle To Save CHE Café

Evening Edition

Aired 7/11/14 on KPBS News.

The CHE Café, a UCSD underground music venue as well as a hotbed for progressive politics for over three decades, may have to close because university officials say it's unsafe. The student volunteers who run the CHE are putting up a fight.

The battle to save the CHE Café, an all-ages, underground music venue and vegetarian restaurant on the edge of the UC San Diego campus, has been underway for months. Some might say for years.

“This is something the university has done before,” explained Davide Carpano, one of the student volunteers who helps run the CHE through a collective. He’s referring to the university’s latest effort to close the CHE (which stands for Cheap Healthy Eats). Administration officials say the building is in need of a fire sprinkler system — to the tune of $700,000 — and is unsafe. They've sent the collective an eviction notice.

“We actually have an article from the 1980s, where the university used the exact same pretexts and the exact same inflated numbers,” said Carpano.

On a campus known for cutting edge research and modern architecture, the CHE Café feels like something out of the 1960s, though the venue dates to 1980. Its small wooden building is covered in murals, some of them by well-known muralists, featuring activists like Che Guevara and Angela Davis.

Music fans, especially of punk and hardcore, have flocked to the CHE over the years to see bands they couldn’t see elsewhere. Green Day played there before they became famous. So did Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Davide Carpano and Rene Vera are volunteers who help run the CHE Cafe, which may close later this year.

“It’s been a place where students who don’t really fit in with the dominant culture on campus can come and create their own community around types of music that aren’t listened to on campus, and types of activism that aren’t appreciated on campus,” said Carpano.

He said university officials have never liked what the CHE stands for, so there’s always some renewed effort to shut it down.

The CHE collective insists the fire sprinkler system was only recommended, not mandatory. The UCSD Fire Marshall would not comment for this story.

The collective has been fighting back, most notably by filing a lawsuit on Monday against the university, their landlord, for breach of contract. They also filed and won a restraining order against the university so they can stay in the building until the lawsuit is resolved. They plan to continue booking shows until September.

Money to pay for the fire sprinkler system would normally come from student fees. Sammy Chang chaired the student board that decides how student fees should be spent. He says only a small portion of UCSD students go to the CHE Café, so even though it has this unique history on campus, it’s not a priority. “We’re still obligated to the students who pay the fee who don’t really fully understand all of the CHE’s traditions and what the CHE Café is,” explained Chang. “Only 2 percent of the students even use the CHE Café,” he added. That's based on a survey conducted by the university.

Chang said most students use the spacious Price Center, where there are restaurants and lounges. In the face of budget deficits, he said they have to put the money where the most students are.

Andrea Carter, the lawyer representing the CHE’s fight to stay open, said this is about the university opting to make a profit. The CHE’s rent is low ($80 a month) and Carter said the university could make more money by renting the land to a private vendor.

“The social spaces that the university now seems to prefer are ones that are privately operated, profit-driven and not dedicated to providing practical education opportunities,” said Carter.

She sees the recent decision to allow a Starbucks on campus as emblematic of the trend.

The CHE Café, however, has not been a model tenant. They are close to $4,000 behind in rent and utilities. In years past, they’ve let their insurance payments lapse and lost their non-profit status for not filing tax forms.

Representatives for the collective admit keeping up with the rent was tough because they focused on paying a hefty insurance bill. They say they’ve never been a priority at the university, despite operating a historic building that was once the student center and the heart of campus.

“Overall this space has not been given the maintenance it deserves over the last 34 years,” said Rene Vera, another CHE cooperative member. “If they would just put $10,000 into it every couple of years, or maybe a $50,000 renovation, this would all be fixed right now and it wouldn’t be this big lump sum come due.”

Those fighting to save the CHE Café have nostalgia on their side. Music lovers, like Charles Henry Peckham, insist the music scene at the CHE is rare. “There’s not anything like the CHE that I have ever seen and I’ve been going to shows for a long time,” said the Cal State East Bay grad.

Collective member Davide Carpano is surprised the university doesn’t want to support the alcohol free zone at the CHE, given what he calls “rampant alcohol abuse on campuses nationwide.”

“I have a lot of friends who’ve struggled with alcohol, who’ve struggled with drugs in their lives and one way they’ve been able to overcome that is by having spaces like the CHE,” said Carpano.

UCSD incoming freshman Mauro Chavez is a regular at the CHE. A hardcore music fan, he hopes the venue stays open for his college career.

"There aren't a lot of places that have as strong a sense of character as the CHE."

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